Book Review: "Really Good Dog Photography"

for Four & Sons Magazine

by Sam Edmonds

Susan Sontag – photography’s most loved/hated writer and critical examiner of the medium wrote extensively about photography’s ability to usurp memory. Through the trust that we so heavily place on photographs and the mechanical nature of both their production and storage, we grew to rely on images as our primary means of preserving memories. But in the age of social media, one could argue a radical shift has taken place; along with the migration from film to digital cameras and with the ephemeral nature of Instagram feeds, photographs are short-lived, temporary or even elusive.

For Lucy Davies, author of Really Good Dog Photography, “photography has become less about preserving, more about conveying” and in her eclectic, heart-felt introduction to the astounding book, she lays out the premise quite concisely: the appetite for cute/happy/hilarious and gorgeous dog images online represents photography’s on-going non-commitment to man’s best friend. While almost the entire history of painting has embraced canines and revered them on the same level as members of our own species, photography has long exhibited a deficit in taking dogs seriously, peaking with the advent of social media. And it’s difficult to argue with her as 150,940,356 posts on Instagram tagged with “dog” serve as evidence.

By essentially cutting out the “fluff and slobber” of most modern dog photographs, Really Good Dog Photography focuses on an array of photographic practitioners and their incredible diversity of dog-centric photo essays and explorations. Along with curator Martin Usborne, Davies briefly takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through dog-art photographic history before dedicating an impressive number of pages to each photographer’s works. As Davies explains, the works have been chosen for their ability to “approach the dog as a sentient, intelligent and mortal being and because they consider the relationship that has formed between dogs and humans for the extraordinary and intriguing thing it really is.” But on top of this, many of the series address several issues facing dogs, humans and our relationship and Davies doesn’t baulk at peppering her text with some startling statistics: “The British rehoming charity Dogs Trust handles around 45,000 calls each year from people trying to give up their pets and the RSPCA picked up 102,363 strays last year, of which only about half were reunited with their owners,” she says.

But these numbers are mirrored closer to home as well as the RSPCA Australia reports having received 45,256 dogs at their shelters around the country in the 2015/16 financial year. And in a way, this issue seems to reflect so much of what Really Good Dog Photography seeks to address: just as dogs are now so often treated as re-producible, expendable commodities, the online cloud of photographs of them are often just as self-centered and uncharitable. As Davies explains: the way people photograph their dogs is likely a poor representation of true experience - only happy, clean, energetic, cute, well-housed, for instance. It's skewing our understanding of how a dog 'should' behave, or look.” In Really Good Dog Photography, Davies and Usborne seem to have set out to undermine this; to collect and display those photo essays that do dogs the justice they deserve; to free them of anthropocentrism and through the varying lenses of the featured practitioners, celebrate them entirely for their own traits and abilities.

Just as Davies’ introduction to both the text and each featured artist has brilliantly contextualized the themes and ideas informing the works, Usborne’s curation has astutely encompassed a spectrum of methodologies and photographic voices covering the witty and comical observations of Elliot Erwitt to the precision of Jo Longhurst’s revealing typological study. Opening the collection of imagery, Charlotte Dumas’ catalogue of portraits of rescue dogs from the aftermath of 9/11 brings us humbly to the homes of these canine heroes and provides what Usbrone admits is his favorite series of the publication. “My eye often rests on the work of Charlotte Dumas,” he says. “Her images are particularly quiet - they don’t scream concept or statement - and as such the animals own voice seems to shine through. And ultimately that’s the most powerful thing I feel a picture of an animal can do.”

Further into the book, Magnum photographer Alec Soth’s Dog Days, Bogota explores a limbo of pending fatherhood as the photographer finds solace in the lives of Colombian street dogs while he and his wife wait to meet their adopted daughter. Further down the line again, Tony Mendoza’s extended portrait of a pint-sized egomaniac named Bob brings a Gilden-esque use of unflattering light to the canine world. And somewhere in the middle, Mark Ruwedel’s neutral palettes of abandoned dog houses in the California desert at once echo the “colossal economic and political” basis of the American frontier but also disclose a sense of the ephemeral nature of bonds, care and life itself; the shared existentialism between humans and dogs.

While photography may have some work to do to catch up with painters’ reverence for dogs, the bodies of work on display in Really Good Dog Photography certainly are a step in the right direction. Much like the canines surrounding Diogenes and his tattered clothes and up-turned bathtub, this book will provide a great companion and is sure to charm the pants off any reader – two-legged or four.